Critics’ and audiences’ praise for Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has gone so far over the top that we can no longer consider it a mere film. It has achieved transcendence, transformed into an ineffable phenomenon that must be witnessed firsthand so you too can contribute your own worshipful burblings.
As Richard Lawson of Vanity Fair says, Dunkirk magically shape-shifts from a crude commercial product to a sublime outpouring: “It was a dance piece, then a music video, then a poem, then a prayer.”
Then, presumably, nothing but the pure sweet air breathed on us by God?
But I say we stop the escalation here and give to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. Dunkirk is a movie. It has good parts, bad parts, and okay parts. It has some extremely gripping action sequences and nicely agile camerawork that looks great in 70mm. But much of it isn’t particularly memorable.
Nolan’s no Andrei Tarkovsky, who really did court the sublime, locking images permanently in your brain. All I could recall of Dunkirk the next day, in contrast, were a few excellent aerial shots during the Royal Air Force–Luftwaffe dogfights and a confused sense that I’d watched at least ten nail-biting scenes of people nearly drowning.
I also remembered a good little scene partway through that sums up some of the film’s best qualities. Three young soldiers we’ve been following are sitting in the sand, exhausted by their failed attempts to get off the long, gloomy beach where the remnants of English and French armies are trapped. They see an older soldier in the distance walk rapidly toward the rough surf, toss his helmet behind him, and plunge in. He’s had it, and they’ve had it, and they watch his suicide impassively.
Nobody talks in this scene because they’re all so tired and afraid. That’s one of a few good moves Christopher Nolan makes. He lets his sweeping sense of action and scope rule and tamps down his often-affected character work and expository dialogue. Listening to Hans Zimmer’s relentless, thrumming score is infinitely better than hearing characters about to die explaining themselves to each other.
Nolan also smartly drops us into the middle of the grim scenario at Dunkirk without a lot of context, mainly sticking with a few soldiers (Aneurin Barnard, Fionn Whitehead, and Harry Styles) who don’t know what the hell’s going on. All they know is they want to get off that beach. Their story is accompanied by two other plotlines: those of the RAF pilots (Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden) trying to hold off the Luftwaffe and of one middle-class pleasure-boat owner (Mark Rylance) coming to the soldiers’ rescue.
Nolan dramatically announces his narrative categories early on with solemn titles that appear over images: The Mole, which refers to the long concrete pier on the beach, The Sea, and The Air.
The drama of the Dunkirk evacuation doesn’t require a lot of explanation. Maybe it helps to know that the Battle of France was a catastrophic rout that directly led to the Nazi occupation of Belgium, France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. It left a large percentage of the British army, including its tanks, vehicles, and equipment, stranded on the French coast.
Why the Nazis failed to wipe out everyone on that beach and go on to invade England remains a matter of considerable speculation. But they did fail, at least long enough for scores of British fishermen, merchant marines, pleasure-boat weekenders, and yachtsmen to form an emergency flotilla and rescue most of the soldiers. This populist victory, pulled out of the jaws of devastating military defeat, makes Dunkirk a weighty, finest-hour moment in British national identity.
No matter how versed you are in World War II history, you can pick up the necessary information pretty easily in the film. Still, certain critics have censured Dunkirk for not including more explanation, more dialogue, and more “heart.”
And if you know war films, you know what that means: more bathos, more characters named Tank who tell their touching backstories before dying bravely, more guts-and-glory posturing, more flag-waving, and more strong-jawed John Wayne swagger.
Or, given the British subject matter, more Winston Churchill, as reviewer Dorothy Rabinowitz explicitly argues. Where’s the Great Man in all this, she demands in her scolding ultra-conservative way. Why is the legendary Tory imperialist not at the center of the drama? What is this, some commie film with a collective hero?
This is not to say that Churchill doesn’t appear. Nolan just saves his rumbling oratory for the finale. Then we hear his famous speech rallying the demoralized British population that, after Dunkirk, expects a Nazi invasion any minute: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight on the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…”
We should be grateful that Nolan, exhibiting unprecedented self-restraint, holds back the emotional onslaught for so long. Nolan is as big a ham as exists in cinema, and he probably uses Churchillian speechifying to order a beer: “If the British empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘THIS was their finest beer!’”
Indeed, much of the film’s suspense comes from the fear that Nolan’s about to go all Churchill on your ass. Kenneth Branagh’s presence doesn’t help, because he’s the hammiest living British actor and can’t make a move or speak a syllable that isn’t fraught with portent. Consider the moment, highly dangerous if you dread pompous overacting, when Branagh’s commanding officer first spies the distant flotilla that will save them, and peers through binoculars to identify what’s approaching.
“What do you see?” asks his aide, setting Branagh up for the punchline.
Sir Kenneth counts off a few beats, just like they taught him at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He savors his one-word line, delivering it with maximum brio: “HOPE.”
Mark Rylance, who has a remarkable ability to act like a regular human being, helps balance out Branagh. As the pleasure-boater who joins the flotilla, he keeps his poker face still and says things in an ordinary uninflected way that seems believable, even when surrounded by a bunch of emoting show-offs. Nolan keeps trying to torpedo Rylance’s underplaying by framing him next to the Union Jack to remind us that this seemingly average man represents the bulldog breed that put the “great” in Great Britain.
Rylance can generally hold off Nolan’s worst impulses, but he ultimately can’t defeat the end of the script, which finally releases all the suppressed sentimental excess that’s been held back and hurls it at the audience with a messy splat. Like Branagh’s “HOPE” climax, Rylance’s mild dad character is revealed to be the bereaved father of an RAF pilot killed in action representing the noble sacrifices of The People.
Worst of all, though, is Tom Hardy’s finale. Hardy stays so nicely restrained behind his mask throughout, with no eye-popping reaction shots to his impossibly heroic acts, like shooting down several German planes in the nick of time, saving boatloads of Brits below, and managing to land his plane — which has long been running on empty — in a perfectly smooth glide down the beach.
Nolan betrays all Hardy’s discipline with a garish final shot featuring the pilot as handsome film star, standing tall and stalwart, haloed by an obnoxiously orange sunset, demonstrating his character’s God-is-an-Englishman superiority to the ordinary run of mortals. It reminded me of Michael Powell’s short tribute to the RAF, An Airman’s Letter to His Mother, a brilliant little film exercise but batty with hero-worship. It concludes with the RAF insignia rising up through the window to ascend to heaven against sunlit clouds.
The last and most important good move Nolan makes is keeping Dunkirk to a sane running time. It’s a crisp 106 minutes, making it practically a short film compared to The Dark Knight Rises or Interstellar. This keeps Tory propaganda and speechifying to a stark minimum. Enjoy this terser Nolan! Other than bits of Memento and those great Joker scenes in The Dark Knight, this may be his finest hour (and forty-six minutes).